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Rock in the Name of Progress (Part V-

A Snapshot of Hopperiana: An Interview with legendary bassist Hugh Hopper)

By Brian L. Knight

 

progressive \Pro*gress"ive\, a. [Cf. F. progressif.] 1. Moving forward; proceeding onward; advancing; evincing progress; increasing; as, progressive motion or course; -- opposed to retrograde. (Websters Dictionary)

Bassist Hugh Hopper says that "ninety percent of his time is not spent playing music". If you look at his discography and all the bands that he has been part of, it is hard to take this statement as the truth. Starting off as a jazz bassist, Hopper became synonymous with the "Canterbury Music scene" which was a collection of musicians who played progressive rock throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Along with fellow Canterburiuians Pye Hastings, Robert Wyatt and Richard Sinclair, these musicians comprised bands such as the Wilde Flowers, Caravan, Soft Machine, Henry Cow and Hatfield and the North. Although there was a collective label, the bands that came out of Canterbury covered many different styles and moved way beyond the geographical limitations of Canterbury. The music of Caravan was very lyrical and was similar to the progressive music of Genesis while Henry Cow played a combination of avant-garde jazz and rock and roll. Strangely enough, most of the bands rose out of the R&B band the Wilde Flowers and then branched out into their own styles.

Hopper’s main Canterbury vehicle was Soft Machine who played a combination of jazz, psychedelic and rock and roll. The band is best remembered for sharing the bill at the hippie festival, the 14 Hour Technicolor Dream with Pink Floyd and their tour with Jimi Hendrix across the United States, but their most creative period came when Hopper was promoted from roadie to primary bassist/composer (Then bassist Kevin Ayers left to follow his own dreams,)

For the first three years of the 1970, Hopper defined the jazz-rock sound of Soft Machine with his trademark fuzz bass. Afterwards, he pursued a prolific solo career in which he played in many pick up and studio bands with noted jazz players, rock and rollers and avant-gardists. Along the way, Hopper never lost his passion for tinkering in the studio. From his 1973 solo, 1984, album right up to the present day, Hopper has maintained a high level of experimentation in which he has combined the abilities of the individual with the technology of the studio to create some truly imaginative music.

Through Cuneiform Records, fans of Hugh Hopper have been treated to "Hopperiana" old and new. The label released a 1971 live recording of the classic lineup of Soft Machine at a concert in Germany. The tape features Hopper, Elton Dean, Mike Ratledge and Robert Wyatt working through some truly dynamic jams. On the other end, Hopper recorded Delta Flora through a Pacific Northwest band known as Hughscore. Delta Flora takes a lot of the principals laid down by Soft Machine and gave a bit of a 1990s twist thrown in.

Through a letter interview, the Vermont Review found a lot about Hugh Hopper, the Canterbury Music scene, Soft Machine’s tour with Hendrix, his solo albums and his 1990s work with Hughscore. Enjoy.

Vermont Review: First of all, could you tell us a little about Whitstable? What brought you there? How long have you been there?

Hugh Hopper: Whitstable. In fact I was born in a maternity clinic here, although I never lived here until 1996. I spent the first twenty so years living in Canterbury, then moved around. I was flying for awhile in France and then came back with new Anglo-French family to live in England and chose Whitstable. It’s by the sea and less tourist-ridden than nearby Canterbury, which has become a theme park, basically- no real shops, just souvenir boutiques etc.

VR: The last time I checked, I thought you were in Seattle, USA playing with Hughscore. Were you living in the Pacific Northwest for a while?

HH: I never lived in the Northwest. We recorded the first Hughscore record in Portland and the second in Seattle, at the home studio of Wayne Horvitz, but both times I was just visiting for ten days or so.

VR: How does Hughscore differ from the Hugh Hopper band in terms of type of music performed?

HH: The three Hughscore records have all been very much studio oriented. We use all the studio tricks available. Lots of overdubbing, everyone playing weird non-standard things, Whereas the Hugh Hopper Band started out firstly as a live gigging band, in Holland, and that’s really how it continued. On Carousel we did do a bite of studio trickery – backwards guitar, sampling breaking glass and so on, but basically the records sounds pretty much like the band does at a live gig.

VR: How did you get Hughscore together?

HH: Fred Chalenor of the Portland band Caveman Shoestore asked me for the score of mine to play with Elaine Di Falco and Henry Franzoni, the other two thirds of Caveman. Fred and Henry were both old Soft Machine/Canterbury freaks, but Elaine in fact had never heard of me till then. Anyway, things progressed and we thought more and more of doing a collaboration, so more and more scores whistled to and fro across the Atlantic. Caveman had a contract with the now defunct Tim/Kerr Records, who released the first two CDs. We called the project Caveman Hughscore, then just Hughscore when Henry Franzoni departed. It was funny – I’d be saying to Fred, ‘Fred, you should take a solo here.’ (He’s a much better bassist technically than I ever was). But as an old Softs fans, he was happy to sit in the studio listening to me to play.

VR: Some of the folks from Hughscore also played in Wayne Horvitz’s Zony Mash. Have you heard that band? What do you think?

HH: Yes, I saw Zony Mash one night in Seattle when we were recording Hi-Spot Paradox, the second Hughscore CD. It was in a fairly seedy bar and was great. Wayne got that band together to have a residency in his hometown over the summer. It was a lot more funky than some of the New York stuff he’s associated with. Wayne on monster Hammond organ, Fred, as usual, on virtuoso bass. Tim Young, the guitarist, is great to watch – even when he’s not playing he’s always moving about. And Wayne’s tunes are very tasty – after the gig I told him he wrote tunes that were unlike most keyboardist’ – not so anally fixated on lush "correct" chord sequences, more melody based…….his reply was that he started as a bass player.

VR: Did you bring Hughscore on the road?

HH: We did one gig with Hughscore after the first recording sessions in Portland, in a record shop – just as a kind of a promo event. It was fun, but really that band is not set up for gigs. Two bass players, Elaine playing various keyboards and accordion…..a different drummer on each of the three CDs…….visiting French horn and didgeridoo players. What is good about the records, I think, is that we approached the project as a recording project, using the full resources of the studio and not trying to make it sound like a live band necessarily.

VR: On Hughscore, you do a version of "Facelift" which has a different feel than the Soft Machine version. Has the song served as a vehicle for improvisation at different stages of your career?

HH: I have used Facelift occasionally with other projects since Soft Machine – usually because someone lese has requested it. It’s a good piece, but for me it’s a bit too closely welded into the history of the Softs. The arrangement of Delta Flora, the third Hughscore CD, was basically Fred and drummer/producer Tucker Martine’s concept, and it’s good that went for a completely different feel. I think I contributed the harmony to the theme that appears here and there, but like most of the record it is very much Fred and Tucker picking up morsels of Hopperiana and creatively grinding them into something bizarre and wonderful. I did a version live recently with French musicians from the Collectif Polysons and their arranger had even scored out the backwards section at the end for playing live!

VR: How is the Soft Machine version and the Hughscore version similar?

HH: I suppose the things that stayed similar are the constant rhythm that runs through each version (although it’s by no means the same feel), and the fact that both have that kind of Indian/Coltrane drone approach – no chord changes. And on the recorded version on Soft Machine Third, I used a lot of tape jiggery – mixing live and studio sounds, speeding up parts, the backwards ending.

VR: Delta Flora features one of your old Soft Machine mates, Elton Dean on saxophone. How often do you two speak to each other?

HH: I spoke to Elton yesterday! But in fact not so very often these days. He lives half the time in Paris. We did do a gig recently in Germany with Keith Tippett and John Marshall – the first time I’d played with John since leaving Soft Machine in 1973. I worked a lot with Elton ( and Keith from time to time) after the Softs – we had several bands together and also played in Phil Miller’s In Cahoots. I invited him to record saxophone on Different, a CD I was making with the singer Lisa S Klossner a couple of years ago and one of the tracks wasn’t used for the Lisa record but was too good to lose, into was inserted into "Facelift" on Delta Flora. Waste not, want not.

VR: Your first solo album after leaving Soft Machine was the remarkable 1973 release 1984. Are you a fan of the book?

HH: I was a fan of Orwell and 1984 in earlier days. I liked his irony. I can’t say I read much stuff like that now. It seems a little too simplistic and innocent. Life has accelerated so much since he was writing in the thirties and forties.

VR: Do you think that we are heading towards an Orwellian society?

HH: We’ve probably passed through the Orwellian stage. Or at least. The Soviet Union has, which is what he was writing about. He would be amazed, I’m sure, to see that Stalinist power in Russia just kind of frittered away and what they have now in Russia is a crummy third rate banana republic. Which is not to say that there are no creative artists there, there always were. In the west (which is expanding globally to enclose most of the world), the worse danger now is from bureaucrats and large commercial institutions who seem to want to smooth everything over so it’s all a pleasant, unremarkable landscape. Fortunately there will always b creative hooligans about to subvert things.

VR: With you playing so many of the instruments and machines, was 1984 a difficult to record?

HH: 1984 was not difficult. I’ve always played around with tape machines, loops, double tracking and so on. I have fun in studios. Ideas naturally pop into what I loosely call my brain. Some musicians hate to record, hate to fix something forever on tape, but I love it all.

VR: Were you aware of David Bowie’s 1984 tribute at the time? Have you had a chance to listen to David Bowie’s interpretation? What do you think of it?

HH: I see to remember that Bowie’s 1984 came out a year or so after mine? Mine was totally uncommercial in approach. There’s no doubt whose version sold more records! I think I heard bits of it on the radio but I was never a particular fan of Bowie, which I am sure is a great and everlasting sadness to him.

VR: Who was Terry Riley and how did he influence the 1984 recording?

HH: Terry Riley was one of first minimalist musicians/composers. He is still going strong inn California. People like Phillip Glass and Steven Reich somehow became more well known than Riley – glass mainly because of film scores, perhaps, but Terry Riley was a big influence on me and on Mike Ratledge, the keyboardist of Soft Machine. His pieces have a cyclical approach that sues repeating loops. Loops can be soothing or sinister. Drift away or run screaming from the room.

VR: How much of 1984 was all out improvisation?

HH: A lot of 1984 was improvised. I had a few themes and areas sketched out but long sections are bass improvising over bass, speeded up, backwards, slowed down.

VR: Throughout the years, your bass work has been associated with the fuzz bass. Could you describe, in laymen’s terms, what a fuzzbox and fuzz bass are?

HH: A fuzz box is an electronic circuit that distorts the sound of any signal passed through it, to a lesser or greater level of aural pain/pleasure in the listener. Many guitarists have sued them since the mid-1960s and Paul McCartney used one on bass on Rubber Soul. I started using one while recording the second Soft Machine album. A lot of the bass parts had to be as strong as the lead organ lines – they weren’t just bom-de-bom backing accompaniments – so Ratledge suggested that I get a fuzz box. They band became very loud: organ and bass both on fuzz at times, through big Marshall amps.

VR: How much of the compositions of Cage and Stockhauzen influence your own compositions?

HH: John Cage never really influenced me musically, but I totally approve of his concepts! Silent music and so on…..but it’s more a subject for discussion than a desire to actually experience a concert of his works.. Stockhausen was probably a strong underlying influence somewhere in my musical growing up, at least for the sounds involved, the atmospheres. I sued to listen to pieces like Kontakte. Great jagged sounds. Strange dry bleeps. Really something new. In the fifties and sixties he had to labor away for weeks or months, building up those soundscapes. Nowadays, of course, you could do pretty much the same thing in a couple of hours with a sampler.

VR: Which do you prefer – composition or improvisation?

HH: I like both composition and improvisation for two different reasons. Improvisation gives you an immediate adrenaline buzz when things go well. The pleasure of composing comes in stage – the creative planning, the development, the final stage when you hear others playing your ideas.

VR: Which do you prefer – playing live or studio work?

HH: Same with playing. Live is an immediate thing, good or bad. You’ve played it and its gone. Studio gives you the chance to develop things, meddle with them.

VR: Which do you prefer – the Beatles or the Rolling Stones?

HH: Perhaps this not such a banal question as it first appears, since it relates to the previous two questions? The Beatles became the ultimate studio band whereas the Stones were always really a live band and still are, the poor old dears. I do have some Beatles tapes and I still occasionally play them, but I never bought any Stones records in my life although we played more Stones numbers than Beatles in Wilde Flowers…….hmmm, all right, I’ll say Beatles.

VR: How often do return to playing standard jazz?

HH: I very rarely play standard jazz. I am not a very good standards bassist. I love listening to it played by the masters like Scott La Faro, but I have always found it a bid sad the way young players spend their lives trying to sound like a long-dead American hero.

VR: Who are some of your favorite jazz musicians?

HH: Coltrane, Dolphy and so on. The musicians who did something different, didn’t just follow the current trend.

VR: It seems that the music/musicians of the "Canterbury Scene" is relatively unheralded in the United States. Do you have any suggestions why?

HH: Canterbury music is somewhat unassertive. The best things about it are its irony, self-deprecation, and sneaky little asides. Maybe that’s not what attracts the general record buying public In USA or Europe.

VR: With Caravan and Soft Machine arising out of the Wilde Flowers, there seems to be two distinct progressive rock sounds. Caravan seems to follow a lyrical path while Soft machine went down a jazz-instrumental path. Were those "divisions" apparent" in the Wilde Flowers?

HH: Easy to say now that Wide Flowers had two obviously different camps within, but of course like all groups, Wilde Flowers was changing, evolving constantly. Different singers –Kevin Ayers, Graham Flight, Robert Wyatt, Richard Sinclair. Different drummers as different times had more or less influence on the band’s direction. I was pushing hard for my own musical self to come out in the music and the others were all no doubt all doing the same. Its true about Robert, my brother and myself has experimented with jazz before Wilde Flowers, and that the Sinclairs were more pop oriented. But what about Pye Hastings? He was playing the Charlie Parker tune Billie’s Bounce with all the correct jazz chords when I first met him! Taught be his jazzier brother Jimmy. And Pye probably has the most lyrical reputation of all the Canterbury musicians.

VR: Any comments on the Caravan sound?

HH: Caravan developed a great personal sound. Dave Sinclair’s organ and Pye’s fragile voice. For me it is good when bands find their own sound and concept. Of course we will all have thousands of influences, but my favorite music comes from players who are not trying consciously to copy their heroes.

VR: Was there any fundamental differences to the Soft Machine energy, cooperation, sound or creative process when Kevin Ayers left and you took over the bass for the band?

HH: Kevin is very different character from me. You’d better ask the others what the change felt like when I replaced him in Soft Machine. The obvious thing is that Kevin was mostly interested in songs – he wasn’t interested in being a good bassist or developing Soft Machine as a virtuoso outfit. In fact he wasn’t bad at all as a guitarist and bass player but songs were the important thing. Poems - he thinks of himself mainly as a poet.

VR: While a roadie with the Soft Machine, did you ever find it difficult not being able to play?

HH: I was totally exhausted during most of the Hendrix tour that the last thing I felt like doing was playing. Mike Ratledge once suggested that I pick up the bass if Kevin got too drunk, but I liked Kevin’s playing when he was drunk, actually! I did play a bit when we got to New York at the end of two and a half-month’s touring. Ratledge and I wrote the minimal piece Box 25/4 Lid in the hotel before the Soft Machine recording session and that’s the only bit I played on the first Soft Machine album. I wasn’t in a high profile playing mode anyway at that time.

VR: Any thoughts on Jimi Hendrix?

HH: Yes, I wish I had been less exhausted "roadying" on the 1968 Hendrix US Tour! I had the chance to see Hendrix every night but mostly I used the time to desperately try to snatch a couple of hours sleep. Hendrix had one roadie and I was the sole roadie for the Soft Machine. We used to pack up the gear, drive on overnight towards the next gig, grab a shower in the hotel in the next town if we were lucky, and then set up again. A great life when your young. But of course- Hendrix – one of the true influential greats. A natural player. And it was good that Chas Chandler had the idea of bringing him to England where he was exposed to all the mid sixties London masses. Don’t forget that America was pretty straight and square at that time, apart from a few Loony pockets.

VR: Have you had a chance to hear the Virtually CD? What do you think of it?

HH: Yes, Steve Feigenbaum at Cuneiform Records always contacts me first if there’s a Soft Machine tape uncovered for release. Robert Wyatt hates all mention of Soft Machine, Mike Ratledge doesn’t give a shit, having made a lot of money in television music, so I am the one. In fact, I rarely listen to Soft Machine. Maybe once or twice a years. It’s thirty years ago for God’s sake.. But, yes, there were lots of gigs where we played like demons, so it’s good that people can hear what the band sounded like live, on tour in the middle of Europe. The studio records are all a bit restrained.

VR: What do you think of Whitney Houston’s version of your song "Memories"?

HH: If only Whitney Houston had recorded "Memories" a year or so later – I‘d be a rich person now. The interesting thing about that version is that she copies Robert Wyatt’s phrasing on his Virgin single almost exactly. Fred Frith was working with Bill Laswell at the time and he introduced Robert’s version to Laswell. Whitney was then almost unknown. In fact Fontella Bass was supposed to sing for Laswell’s Material project. I first heard it when an A&R guy from Elektra called me from New York and played the track down the phone! He asked me who I though the sax player was and I suggested Gary Windo, but of course its Archie Shepp – an old hero of ours from the avant-garde days. To be honest, the production is a little ropey – Laswell’s bass is out of tune and Shepp sounds as they only gave him one take and no chance to listen beforehand…but, yes, a nice little record to have been partly responsible for. Actually, one of my favorite versions of the song is the 1969 demo included on the Voiceprint Wilde Flowers CD. Robert singing with Ratledge on a Satie-esque piano.

VR: Any other interesting versions of your songs by other artists?

HH: "Memories" has been covered quite a few times. It was about the second song I ever wrote, back in 1964. Apart from that, it’s been mostly the instrumental pieces that other bands have covered.

VR: You played on many Syd Barrett albums. To many young Americans, the man is an enigma. Could you tell us a bit about him?

HH: Syd Barrett I hardly new at all. I just did one session for him with Ratledge and Wyatt at abbey Road when he was recording Madcap Laughs. The three tracks we played on have reappeared on various Syd recompilations. Mike and Robert knew him more than me because they were around in Soft Machine when the two bands were getting off the ground in 1966. Syd came along to a Softs gig in 1969 and asked us if we’d d like to record a bit with him. Almost whispering. At Abbey Road he played us the three tracks and suggested we play along. His stuff is very asymmetrical – there are sudden extra beats and swerves to throw you off. We were getting close to thinking we almost knew how the pieces went when Syd said "That’s Great –thanks" and the session was over. He was apparently happy with what we’ve done even though we thought we were just rehearsing. That’s what you hear on those tracks on the record.

VR: Is there anybody out there that you would like to play with that you haven’t?

HH: There is someone just around the corner and we haven’t met yet but when we do, it’ll be great. No, I don’t have a shopping list of musicians.

VR: Your name is synonymous with the "Canterbury Music Scene." Besides the fact that there was a mass proliferation of musicians from the same city, do you think there was a similarity in the types of music played amongst the Canterburians?

HH: Canterbury Music is a label invented about ten years after the original members (about a half-dozen, really – there was never a mass movement there) had all long disappeared elsewhere. In fact at the time of Wilde Flowers etc, we couldn’t wait to leave Canterbury and make our fortunes in London or wherever. It’s now used to cover musicians who’ve never been in England, let alone Canterbury. But it’s a useful label – I use it myself.

VR: What kind of music are you listening to today?

HH: I still listen to a lot of jazz. I’m buying CDs of all the jazz LPs we had in the sixties. The classic Coltrane Quartet still gives me as much pleasure as thirty five years ago, maybe more. Terrible retrograde. But at least I don’t try to play or write like that for my own projects.

VR: What do you do when you are not playing music?

HH: Probably about 95 % of my life is spent not playing music. I do all the usual wonderful things. I spend more and more time songwriting at the moment.

Hugh Hopper seems to be always popping up with new and exciting music. To keep abreast of his projects, I would suggest the following web sites: Hugh Hopper Home Pages http://musart.co.uk/hhhpage.htm; and http://musart.co.uk/hughcv.htm; or at Cuneiform Records. Most recently, Cuneiform Records has released two live recordings from Soft Machine’s heyday – Noisette and Virtually. The latter was recorded with the classic quartet of Hopper, Elton Dean, Mike Ratledge and Robert Wyatt, while the former features the same quartet plus saxophonist Lyn Dobson. Both are amazing live recordings and worthy of a listen. In the next few issues of the Vermont Review, get ready for the of progressive rock from the 1970s through the 1990s – Happy the Man, Styx, Pendragon, Thinking Plague, Acoustic Trauma and much, much more.

 

Go to Part IV

Go To Part VI